Fianna Fail heading for first overall majority in 25 years

Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, and his Fianna Fail party remained on course yesterday for a decisive victory in tomorrow's Irish general election, riding high in the polls and hopeful of an overall majority, the first in Ireland since 1977.

Two opinion polls indicated that Mr Ahern retained the strong lead he has maintained over opposition parties right through his campaign. The main question appears to be whether he heads a coalition or a single-party government.

The campaign has been increasingly labelled boring, given that the showing of the parties has not altered much for some weeks.

Mr Ahern is judged to have losta lengthy television head-to-head on Tuesday night with his chief opponent, the Fine Gael leader, Michael Noonan. The latter, who is generally regarded as the superior debater, is reckoned to have made a strong showing.

While this was an important occasion, watched by no fewer than 800,000 viewers, it is seen as coming too late in the campaign to upset the established trends. The general view is also that Mr Noonan failed to land the kind of punch necessary to inflict serious damage on Mr Ahern.

The Fine Gael leader will none the less be hoping that the outcome of the debate, and last-minute jitters among voters nervous of giving Fianna Fail an overall majority, will lead to a late surge. If this does not happen then Fine Gael will suffer its worst result in decades. Election campaigns have often seen a draining of support from Fianna Fail, particularly under the leadership of Charles Haughey, whose controversial character often cost the party votes. The trend has not been followed this time.

Mr Noonan launched an attack yesterday on Fianna Fail "corruption, cronyism and sleaze" in an effort to make voters think again. But the Fine Gael leader has been criticised for making a mid-campaign strategic shift, having started by emphasising quality-of-life issues and then switched to attacking the government's record on the economy. The latest polls show that an overall majority is within Mr Ahern's grasp.

The Taoiseach's satisfaction rating remains particularly high, at 68 per cent, while Mr Noonan languishes at only 29 per cent. This unmistakably indicates that he has failed to establish himself as a credible alternative Taoiseach.

Chris Glennon, of the Irish Independent, wrote of Fine Gael: "Since the campaign midpoint it has been involved in damage limitation. Only a big effort to get its traditional vote on Friday will prevent a disaster.

"Fianna Fail is getting a big benefit from a feelgood factor flowing from hundreds of thousands more people working and having the kind of disposable cash that enables them to have holidays, motor cars and what consumer goods they want."

Constituency reports meanwhile suggest that Sinn Fein, the Green party and a number of independents are making strong showings in several areas. Sinn Fein is said to be doing particularly well in deprived areas of Dublin.

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